We’re very happy to welcome Tonia Marie Harris as our guest today. Tonia resides in south-central Illinois with her husband, three children, and three rescue animals. In addition to writing novels, poetry and essays, she is President of WME Community Works, a non-profit organization that spearheaded the recent development of a grassroots library that serves her village and the surrounding communities. Tonia’s latest work-in-progress is a coming-of-age novel tentatively titled The Education of Sugar Girl. Her work has appeared in Twice Upon A Time, a collection of reimagined fairy tales, Hand/Eye Magazine, Mash Stories, Silver Birch Press, and various anthologies.
I’m a process junkie. When I finish a book I love—everything from Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History—I immediately want to know the how and why behind the scenes evolution of the story. What I realized was that my own process would never come together if I didn’t simply dive into the deep end and write the darn story.
Confessions of an Intrepid Mermaid
I’m swimming. The water mutes the sound of everything but the distant beat of my heart. The water itself is an echo of that rhythm. Voices and the pounding of feet above me are the sounds of another planet. I am a transmitter for something else entirely—the urge to move forward and rise for another breath and plunge back into the water again. Here I have no need for peripheral vision.
This is the recurring dream I had over the summer. This dream of swimming. If you analyzed this dream, you would tell me I’m on a journey through the depths of my subconscious. You would be right.
I am a plotter. I survey the land, measure the depths, and calculate the constellations. I am a pantser. I leave behind the diagnostics to plunge in and discover the wavering depths of story.
Another Word for Forward
This is my first confession: I’ve spent more time in this last year trying to define what kind of writer I am than doing actual writing.
I want to be a plotter. In real life I came to intimately know the power of to-do lists and preparation. Colorful index cards and the phantasm that is Scrivener lured me like a siren song. I spent months planning a dark fairy tale only to discover it wasn’t the story I wanted to write at this moment, not yet. Not the if I had time to write one book what would it be book.
I tried to plot my current manuscript, but each time something stopped me. Depression. My father’s cancer. More depression and all the wins and losses of daily life that can enrich our writing all while draining our power supply.
I tried pantsing. Familiar territory for someone who for years self-identified this way. It was all false starts and a brooding sense of failure. I wondered if my love for writing and this story in particular was a clichéd tale of star-crossed lovers.
What kind of writer was I, and why was I compelled to label myself before I could move forward?
Confession number two: I suck at achieving middle ground. Not because I believe the world revolves in black and white, but because I have a knack for playing the devil’s advocate. I can you give you compelling reasons to be a plotter or a pantser.
The story continued to be an itch while I scratched at every writerly thing but the thing itself. I had to find a way to it. I wanted to breathe it in. As writers you know this feeling. There’s no shaking it off because The Story is part of your cellular structure.
Then some kind of voodoo happened. I went shopping for school supplies for my children and came home with an extra bag of notebooks and pens. Those are mine, I told my family. My precious.
With a notebook I didn’t begin with chapter one, character sketches, or an outline. I knew I simply had to write my way through. David Foster Wallace once said of life, “This is water.” I’ll take this one step further and tell you story is the same. Pen and paper allow me to put aside my conscious and unconscious hang-ups and discover what is in the water, and what about it makes me so thirsty.
Nomenclature and Final Admissions
In the process of writing this essay, the title alone evolved. I began by praising plotting—it is praiseworthy. Then I scrapped all the plotting I mentioned earlier and thought, look, I’m a pantser. I yam what I yam. Pantsing is praiseworthy, too.
Being the process junkie I am, I sifted through various craft books, Youtube videos, and several online articles—many of them here on Writer Unboxed. I wanted to define my process, but more importantly, offer something substantial you the reader could take away and apply to your writing journey.
The only definitive conclusion I can come to is that writers, other than being endlessly fascinating, arrive to the crux of Story by various means. What matters in the end is that we give readers what they want while remaining true to what it is we have to say. As a reader, what I want is transformation, or at the very least, hope of transformation.
Lisa Cron, in her essay here, asks us with her usual intelligent veracity to think outside of pantsing and plotting. To name ourselves something other. I fully support this concept.
However, I couldn’t define myself as a writer until I found myself by getting lost in the ephemeral density that crafting story is.
So now I rise again for a breath before the dive back into story. I want to know that I’m not spinning in circles and check myself against my True North. I have no surety but that I’m using the knowledge I’ve gained, that I’m yet seeking a better way to distant lands. That the waters I’m swimming are the story itself, not ego or pretense of the deluge of questioning that often besets us. I’m beginning, always, to trust my inner Voice. I can promise transformation because I’m willing to accept my own evolution.
I am a mermaid.
What are your hang-ups and obsessions that interfere with the act of writing? Have you found a way to put aside process in the act of discovering the story itself?